So, what’s prompted the slightly pompus title for this post? Well, a while ago I was inspired by this blog post at The History Girl’s blog
. It asked the question of what historical novel inspired you and why, and although I couldn’t think of a historical novel per se, I could think of one of my all-time favourite book series when I was growing up that was older than me by enough years that it felt like I was peeking back into the past. The series is not one that most people recognise and the author is not exactly a household name – it’s Gwynedd Rae’s Mary Plain books.
Publisher: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd
ISBN: Non-existant (I did say it was an older than me!)
Published: This edition 1961, originally published 1930
Illustrator: Irene Williamson
Permission sought, but unable to find who copyright belongs to.
Mary Plain is a small bear from the bear pits of Berne zoo. An orphan bear, she lives with her various aunts, uncles and cousins in the bear pits until she’s adopted by a nice man with glasses, the Owl Man. Being a very curious small bear, it’s not long before Mary is getting into all sorts of trouble (never of her own making of course), much to the bemusement of the Owl Man and their friends the Fur-Coat Lady and Bill. She’s precocious, she’s funny, she’s naive, she’s brave and it’s no wonder Mary Plain was one of my favourite characters when I was little. It was just an added bonus that I like bears anyway!
The books were written between 1930 and 1965
, so well before my time and possibly before my dad’s time really. Yet my dad knew enough about them to spot them when the central library was selling them as part of a clear out. I now have about 7 of the books and have been keeping an eye out for them ever since. Even though I first started reading these books 15 years ago I still read them, still love them, and still collect them.
Well that’s all very nice you may say, but exactly WHY do you like this bear so much BooKa? And what has this got to do with a historical novel influencing you throughout your life? After all, isn’t that a bit of a tired idea, that one single book can influence you to such a degree it can change your whole outlook? Weeeell….. maybe not for everyone, but in my case I shall tell you exactly why this bear is so important to me and why I think it’s true that a humble book can have a real impact – it’s because of this:
This is Mary’s writing. The page is taken from Mostly Mary, which I’ve referenced above. Now aside from the obvious charm in these little stories (they’re quite old fashioned and for a little bear, Mary is ever so polite, if a little peculiar), the bit I really loved in these stories were Mary’s notes. She wrote loads of them in each book and she wrote them in a bizarre mix of pictograms and letters. I loved working out these little messages and I’ve loved looking at and puzzling out words ever since – indeed I’ve long been used to seeing different ones than English floating round the house. I’ve grown up with German as a second language and although I can’t speak it fluently, I love to compare what I do know with English. I love the random letters and sounds , like β and ä or ü. Incidentally, for such a harsh language, there are some truly pretty words in German, such as ‘Smetterling’ and ‘Pfifferlinge’ and ‘Fledermaus’. Go grab a dictionary, you’ll be surprised what they are!
For the ultimate in weird letters and sounds, I’ve tried to teach myself Welsh too, which is VERY different to English – take a look at the word for ‘hospital’, for example – ‘ysbyty’ (pronounced us-but-tee, Welsh speakers feel free to correct my pronunciation!).
I’ve also looked, like Mary, at different ways of writing not just saying words. So I get a real kick out of the way ‘ysbyty’ is written (I never said I was cool!). I mean, how curious is that – no vowels like a,e i, o or u in there, but a ‘y’ can sound like an ‘u’ sound; so same sound as in English, but written with a different letter! I love the old gothic script that German used to be written in too:
All those curling, spiky letters – a right pain to read at times but you do get a sense of grandeur from it that the words might not have had on their own. It just looks like this is going to be important or fascinating to read.
So, Mary Plain’s writing joined up with my Anglo-German languages to get me interested in how people write and speak. So when I was at Uni, I somehow got on from that interest to translating bits of text from Ancient Aramaic, a language which has changed since it was first used in 1200 BC, but the kind I was using was around between 1200 BC and 200AD – that’s 1800 years ago! I still can’t quite get my head around how long that actually is. I wasn’t especially interested in what I was translating, but I liked looking at the way the language was used. Unlike in English, the words weren’t all spelt out with letters. They didn’t even use pictograms, like Mary Plain or the Ancient Egyptians. No, what the Aramaens did was they had a root for each word, usually made up of 3 letters, then other letters were added to it to change the meaning. So you could start off with the root is ‘tri’ say, and have the extra letters being ‘angle’ or ‘hce’ (so ‘triangle’ or ‘thrice’ for anyone too lazy to work it out!). The trick was in spotting which root was being used, and which were the letters added to it. A right headache for me to learn (I was never especially good at it!) but so cool to try to unravel – I mean, it’s a completely different way of writing and speaking! This is what Aramaic looks like
Compare it to English, which has lots of similarly written or sounding words in themes (compute, computing, computer, for example), but we don’t necessarily have roots for all our words, and we certainly don’t split them up like the Arameans did (I await the comments from linguists telling me I’m wrong! ).
Unravelling Aramaic was like reading Mary’s notes – look sideways at it, and interpret the letters differently. It didn’t matter that I pretty much got every translation wrong, it was fun trying to puzzle out what the person writing wanted to say and see how their letters worked.
After I left Uni I did a spot of teacher training and through that, I got very interested in seeing how people read. Reading is a big thing for me. Huge, in fact (as if you couldn’t guess!), and I simply cannot imagine what it would be like to have difficulty reading. I want to know, but I can’t. I do know a lot about books though, and I can’t understand the idea either that someone cannot find a book for them or doesn’t want to read. I had several kids in my classrooms who didn’t like reading, or said they couldn’t read, or had difficulty, and each one of them had a different problem with reading. One only liked joke books, another didn’t hear words right to start with so he couldn’t read them properly, and another often spelt things backwards. If you think about it, it’s a pretty complex activity, reading. I mean, you see the words with your eyes, your brain interprets the symbols as letters, puts them together in a way that makes sense, then puts all the words together to make a complete sentence and then it interprets that. That’s a lot to learn how to do, and unsurprisingly some people naturally have problems with some or all of it. Fair do’s, there’s a lot going on and we are all different. Which is how I got interested in things like dyslexia, after I got sidetracked during a project on reading for my course. I spent hours up in the British Library, pouring over articles and books about dyslexia trying to sort out the fact from the myth from the downright barmy, and even if I don’t have the time now, I still like to keep my eye out for books that choose different ways for people to read, even if they’re not aimed at people who have a specific problem with words.
Two things have caught my eye in the last few years that really grabbed my word-y attention. Well I say things, that’s a bit impolite. What I mean are publishers (sorry publishers!).
The first has been going for a while but I’m not sure they’re as well known as they should be yet – Barrington Stoke
Barrington Stoke specialise in books for reluctant readers and dyslexic readers. They also change a book so that the words and the pages look completely different to other books, but crucially, they don’t change the cover – no ‘special’ books here!
For reluctant readers (like my joke book kid), they just change how the story is laid out – shorter chapters and shorter words give the reader a break, so a reluctant reader isn’t stuck feeling like they’re reading War and Peace every time they start a chapter. I do wonder sometimes how my joke books kid, who got distracted with longer stories, would have fared if I’d known about Barrington Stoke then.
I’m especially intrigued by Barrington Stoke though because of HOW they change the words and pages, and what it says about how some people read. Such as their changing the pages from white to cream, so as to reduce the glare of the page for the reader. Maybe that’s why some people say that eReading is so helpful, because the pages are generally greyscale instead of stark black and white? I know that even I, who definitely doesn’t have dyslexia, find it difficult to read from a computer screen close-up because the glare from the screen hurts my eyes, even with my specs on. One to research methinks.
They also change the text to a font that’s much easier for dyslexic readers to read, which blows my little owl-y mind! I mean, just changing the shape of a letter can make it easier to read for some! How cool and how simple!
Of course there’s more to having trouble reading than just what shape the letters are (I may not have dyslexia, but I wouldn’t assume that! That’s why I said it only works for some.), so Barrington Stoke plays around with how the words are laid out too. They change the width of the gaps between the words and the edge of the page and between the words themselves. It makes me get sidetracked and wonder about spacing and the direction of reading. I mean, is it worth wondering whether it’s easier for some people to read from right to left, rather than the norm over here in the UK to read from left to right? Could that maybe have an effect on people’s reading, they’re reading in the wrong direction?
It’s absolutely amazing what Barrington Stoke do (and fascinating for those among us *cough cough* who like looking at words). How much of a person’s ability to read is based on how the words are placed on the page? Look at Mary’s writing – yes it looks absolutely nothing like Barrington Stoke’s pages, but it’s still readable. There are obviously more ways to read than just the one.
A second publisher who’s been tinkering with how people read is Hot Key Books
, although they don’t look so much at how
the words are placed on the page, but at what else
is on that page too.
They’ve been working with popular author Sally Gardner, herself a dyslexic, and they’ve created an interactive book that’s suitable for dyslexics. It’s Sally Gardner’s own book Maggot Moon (which I reviewed recently – never needed a whole box of tissues before) and they’ve been busy creating, linking and sourcing to make the words as accessible as possible for people who read differently. So there’s pictures, there’s animated films, explanations from the author herself – all linked to the text. The idea seems to me to be that dyslexics read differently, so naturally you present the book differently. Provide images and videos that compliment the book’s words, maybe highlight some of them – all to make the story come through the words better.
Incidentally, they’ve also done something I haven’t come across before which is show me exactly what it’s like to be dyslexic and reading. Descriptions don’t cut it, this video let’s me see what it’s like and I’m so grateful to them for giving me at last a chance to peep through and see what it’s like.
Check out the making-of too, it’s as interesting to see how publishing works as well as how the book was put together.
What’s also caught my attention though is that reading is not just about the words. If you look at picturebooks, the words themselves can act as part of the picture, they don’t just have to be squiggles to read! Take This is my Book
by Mick Inkpen (of Kipper fame). This book is all about a dragon who keeps pinching the words of the story and scoffing them. He literally plucks the words off the page and takes a bite! B’s, K’s, they all get munched and gobbled! The story’s words are a prop for the story and the dragon is playing about with the words as much as the reader is. I know some of the kids I taught worried about reading, or approached reading as feat of endurance, big gulps of air to prepare themselves and everything. Books like this make as much fun out of the words as possible, especially if it makes you smile to see parts of those words get used as an appetizer! I love books that make the words part of the story too, rather than just the medium to tell it. It probably explains why I love Mary Plain’s little notes – her pictures ARE the words, they blur the line between story and words just like Inkpen’s This is my Book does.
So there it is – how one book with a little bear who wrote in pictograms inspired a whole article on words, text and my intrigue with how people read. I learned to read in a different way with Mary Plain, translating pictures into words. That opened up a whole world of different languages, different alphabets, different ways to read and different ways to tell a story altogether. Thisis why I love books – the stories and characters can have such massive snowballing effects on their readers, no matter what age they’re read in or what they’re about. I wonder what Gwynedd Rae would have thought, if she’d known one random reader 77 years after she first published Mostly Mary would end up writing a blog post online about how Mary’s writing inspired their own sideways look at words? I wonder what she’d think if she could see how writing and reading has changed now, with the likes of Barrington Stoke and Hot Key Books looking at how stories are presented? With all these different ways of reading about now, maybe even Mary’s scratched scrawls will find some bookish cousins soon? I can’t see anything wrong with it, if it means the right person can finally find the perfect way to read.
If nothing else, this whole thing proves that it’s true; one single book can have a profound impact on your life. Just ask Mary Plain.
Thanks to Hot Key Books, and Barrington Stoke for allowing me the use of their logos on my little post here and thank you to the History Girls Blog for giving me an essay to work on 🙂